Dancing to a different tune

TV’s Faking It

Rob Archer is a management consultant. His greatest joy is knocking heads together and streamlining functions in the civil service. He likes this so much, indeed, that he frequently works weekends and has no time to spare. He has no girlfriend, much less a pet.

And yet this week Rob was revealed on Channel Four as a dog trainer. Not just any dog trainer, mind, but a specialist in “doggy dancing”. One who, in just four weeks, aspired to coach a mongrel named Bobbi to leap, roll and glide alongside him – a shaggy Ginger Rogers to Rob’s Fred Astaire.

Faking It (Channel 4) now in its fifth series, was avowedly modelled on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The producers effect weekly miracles by taking individuals out of their everyday lives and challenging them to pass themselves off as something they are not. The greatest episodes would have to include the one in which a punk rocker who couldn’t read music learned within four weeks to conduct an orchestra and convinced expert judges that he’d been doing it for yonks. Then there was the cleaning lady, ordinarily employed on a cross-channel ferry, who not only mastered the mysteries of yachting but actually won a major race at sea.

The programme has spawned many imitators. Last year, the former cabinet minister Michael Portillo won praise for daring to sample for a week the life of an impoverished single mother. And the same producers recently finished filming Clare Short’s best efforts at teaching.

This week the BBC unveiled its own dismal effort, SAS: Are You Tough Enough (“What’s this?” asked one of the retired soldiers in charge, on finding dental floss in a civilian recruit’s kitbag. “Are you a poof?” And it got little better.)

Also this week, Channel 4 launched Regency House Party, in which over the course of several episodes, as the voiceover puts it: “10 single men and women go back 200 years to find out what it was really like to live and love in the world of Jane Austen”. (You’d think Austen wrote about drily technical matters, scarcely connected with living organisms.) Each participant has been assigned a historical role, roughly analogous to their real-life status. An adman named Chris Gorell Barnes was designated most eligible bachelor. After him in the pecking order came a stage manager from London, a dotcom millionaire, a “successful” hairdresser and – finally, buried deep beneath this glittering mound of accomplishment – a science teacher from a state school. The women were ranked along similar lines, and each one given a chaperone.

The point of life-swaps is to provide an insight on the world into which the subjects have been plunged but also into the subjects themselves. Is the SAS tough? Yes, but we knew that already, and learned little about the fitness enthusiasts jogging beneath 35lb rucksacks. Regency House Party, however, taught us – among other useful snippets – how to hold a lady’s fan in order to tell somebody you love them. (The programme boasts no fewer than five historical advisers.) Additionally, it exposed the latter-day participants as boorish and deluded. One, Victoria Hopkins, states in an interview on the Channel 4 website that, “the gentlemen in the house had impeccable manners and were very gallant”. I’m not Jane Austen, but this suggests to me that the online interview was recorded before she’d seen the programme, and specifically scenes such as the one in which “Mr Gorell Barnes” interrogated his footman about one of his guests (“Would you fuck her?”).

Could the adventures of Rob and Bobbi stand up to this fruity challenger, let alone classic episodes of the previous series? Preliminary signs were not auspicious. There was something unusually glib about Rob’s challenge, outlined over footage of him at work in Whitehall: “He might be able to train the top dogs of government, but has he got what it takes to handle a very different kind of beast?”

The beast in question, Bobbi, had been rescued from a home where she was mistreated. “She now has a new owner,” the voiceover perkily assured us, “who has agreed to loan her to Rob for a month of training.” From that moment on, we knew the outcome of this Faking It could only be bittersweet. In Pygmalion, Eliza lashes out at Professor Higgins for making her “too good” for her old life. In Faking It, Rob was taught to love a dog, but with no prospect of getting a dog himself, let alone keeping Bobbi – unless he abandons his busy job and pristine flat.

Rob’s Professor Higgins, considerably warmer than the original, was a champion obedience trainer, Kay Raven. Early on, she broke it to Rob that he must be “more exciting” if Bobbi is to heed him. “Story of my life!” he replied. But he soon established a close rapport with Bobbi, whom he renamed “the Bobster”. Though he hated dancing, that evidently wasn’t because this management consultant was especially self-conscious: Rob is happy to be filmed – indeed, he films himself cooing to the fluffy white dog in falsetto.

In the event, at a national doggy dancing event, the unlikely pair produced a performance that consisted less of dancing than a schoolyard kick-around: to the Match of the Day theme, Rob dashes round in his Liverpool kit, closely marked by the Bobster. On hearing that he has fooled the judges, Rob punched the air in perfunctory celebration, like a man who has won only £10 on the Lottery. Because shortly afterwards, he knew, he would need to hand back the Bobster and drive home.

925 words. First published 20 February 04. © The Financial Times